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Publisher Agrees to Boost Latinx Representation After Backlash to Whitewashed Novel “American Dirt”

StoryFebruary 05, 2020
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We look at the massive backlash and criticism against the novel “American Dirt” as a movement led by Latinx writers declares victory, demanding more representation in the publishing industry. Dignidad Literaria, or literary dignity, formed in response to the controversial immigration novel “American Dirt.” The author, Jeanine Cummins, who is not Mexican, received a seven-figure advance for the book, and it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. But its critics say “American Dirt” exploits and misrepresents Mexico and the experience of Mexican migrants. Critics also say the novel completely erases the voices of Central Americans. On Monday, the leaders of the literary dignity movement celebrated a successful meeting in New York City with the book’s publisher, Macmillan, the owner of Flatiron Books. The publisher agreed to expand Latinx representation in its staff and its publications. The campaign is also calling for an investigation into discriminatory practices in the publishing industry at large. We speak with two co-founders of Dignidad Literaria: in Los Angeles, Myriam Gurba, Chicana writer, podcaster and artist, who wrote the first viral review of “American Dirt” that ignited criticism of the book, and in New York City, Roberto Lovato, award-winning journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Revolution and Redemption.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show looking at the massive backlash and criticism against the novel American Dirt, as a movement led by Latinx writers declare victory, demanding more representation in the publishing industry. The campaign is called Dignidad Literaria, “literary dignity” in English. It formed in response to the controversial novel American Dirt. The author, Jeanine Cummins, who is not Mexican, received a seven-figure advance for the book, and it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. But its critics say American Dirt exploits and misrepresents Mexico and the experience of Mexican migrants. Critics also say the novel completely erases the voices of Central Americans, who actually make up the largest number of asylum seekers currently fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Monday, the leaders of the literary dignity movement celebrated a successful meeting in New York City with the book’s publisher, Macmillan, the owner of Flatiron Books. The publisher agreed to expand Latinx representation in its staff and publications. The campaign is also calling for an investigation into discriminatory practices in the publishing industry at large.

For more, we’re joined by the co-founders of the literary dignity movement. From Los Angeles, we’re joined by Myriam Gurba, a Chicana writer, podcaster, artist, her most recent book titled Mean, a memoir about Gurba’s sexual assault, as well as her coming of age as a queer, mixed-race Chicana growing up in Southern California. She also wrote the first viral review of American Dirt that ignited criticism of the book. And here in New York, we are continuing with Roberto Lovato, award-winning journalist, author of the forthcoming book Unforgetting: A Memoir of Revolution and Redemption.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Myriam, let’s begin with you. Tell us how this all began.

MYRIAM GURBA: This began when I got an email from Ms. magazine asking me to pen a review for them. I agreed to do so. It was indicated to me that the title that I would be reviewing was American Dirt by a woman named Jeanine Cummins. I had no idea what American Dirt was. I had never heard of it. Given the title, I thought it was a book about agriculture. And given the blurb on the book jacket referencing Grapes of Wrath, again, I thought it was about agriculture.

The book arrived. I took it with me to Mexico. I was on a Thanksgiving break visiting my family there. And I dove into the book and immediately got very, very angry. And the book ruined my Mexican vacation. So, I read the book while there. I came back to the United States. I wrote my review. I sent it to Ms.

And then Ms. responded that the takedown, while it was, quote-unquote, “spectacular,” I wasn’t famous enough to write something so negative. The email also said that Ms. magazine doesn’t like to make room in its pages for negative reviews, period, that they would rather steer their readers toward more positive reads. And that annoyed the crap out of me, and so I decided to publish the review myself and then eventually write an essay about the entire experience, which was published on Tropics of Meta.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You subsequently learned that the publishing industry was all abuzz, about this was going to be a breakthrough, a breakthrough book, about the huge contract. How did that affect even more your response to this novel?

MYRIAM GURBA: It grossed me out. It grossed me out that this novel was being constructed as a blockbuster. Its best-seller status was preordained. It was an anointed work. And as an anointed work, I got to observe all this machinery come into place in order to elevate the book and prop it up. And for me, the book has really revealed how big publishing and the big five work.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were the main concerns, if you could summarize, the objections that you found or the problems you found with the book?

MYRIAM GURBA: OK, first and foremost, it’s a poorly written book. It just — the prose is shaky. When I say that the book is Frankensteinesque, I don’t only mean that Cummins reached for tropes and sensibilities that she had no command of, and then blended them and mixed them all together. The book is Frankensteinish just at a structural level and its level of, like, lexicon and syntax. It’s just — it’s sloppy.

And then, to add to that, the folks represented by the book, the brown folks in the book, are paper dolls. They’re paper dolls that are there in order to advance a plot and in order to advance an allegory. And that allegory is United States of America good, Mexico bad. And Mexico isn’t even Mexico. Mexico is anything south of the U.S. border, as far as this book is concerned. Everybody brown sort of flattens into one faceless mass.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to the renowned Mexican writer Sandra Cisneros being interviewed by Maria Hinojosa on NPR’s Latino USA last week. Cisneros has been widely criticized for endorsing American Dirt. Here she addresses why she supports the number one New York Times best-seller.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Did you know Jeanine Cummins before you got American Dirt?

SANDRA CISNEROS: No, I — you know, nothing. I did not know her at all. I just know the stories. You know, reading this book, I said, OK, it had a great resonance for me. And I knew the amount of work that it took to read this from testimonial and to make it into a novel that moves from the first page. You know, it has to — a novel is different from a piece of journalism or piece of nonfiction. It’s different from a script. You know, it has its own engine, and it’s got to roar from page one. And it did that for me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Sandra Cisneros. But there was a major protest outside the offices of Flatiron Books, which is owned by Macmillan, on Monday. You all, Myriam and Roberto, had a meeting. Can you describe this meeting on Monday? And one of the claims was that the publisher canceled the book tour for Cummins because she was receiving death threats. What did you find out in the meeting?

ROBERTO LOVATO: We found out that the Latino community in the United States is capable of exerting its voice and its power to enter the national dialogue that we’ve been excluded from through most of the history of the United States. This was a historic victory with material and political and cultural effects. And there’s no precedent when you have 13 people in a room, a top executive, not just of Flatiron, but Macmillan, one of the most powerful publishing entities in the world, coming to meet with the leader of this movement, that is this five-foot schoolteacher, a little taller with her heels, but who — Myriam, who sparked all of our imaginations to act on this. And so I was moved by that, and I decided, along with our other colleague, David Bowles, who requires mention here, to launch Dignidad Literaria to elevate the dignity. I think what you’re seeing is nothing less than the decline and fall of the — what I call the folklórico-industrial complex of U.S. Latino literature. I think the cartoonish images of Latinos in the United States are starting to be dead. And I think the guarantors of that, you can find them on #DignidadLiteraria.

And so, during the meeting, which had moments of tension and moments of agreement, we actually, you know, wrote out a collective — an agreement, basically. And let me — if I may read it? That would substantially increase — “increasing Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff and its overall … ecosystem.” Now, this has never happened in the annals of U.S. Latino literature.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what you’ve agreed to with Macmillan.

ROBERTO LOVATO: This is what’s been agreed to, in addition to developing an action plan to address these objectives within 90 days and to regroup within 30 days with Dignidad Literaria and other Latinx groups to assess progress. And so, we were in the room with some very serious executives, who very much noticed the explosion of the Latino community in a brilliant critique like Myriam’s and David’s and others’ and also in action, because a lot of us never learned to make the artificial distinction between, say, poetry and politics. A lot of us are poet warriors, let’s say. And so, we went in, and we came out with a success that’s measurable and that will be held accountable by the Latino community, who are the ultimate guarantors of this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Myriam, your response to the meeting?

MYRIAM GURBA: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we have about a minute. Your response to how Macmillan is dealing with the crisis?

MYRIAM GURBA: I mean, I went in there to tell them like, “Look, you guys said you wanted to build a bridge, and you failed. You guys built a wall instead. So, we are here as Latinos to offer our assistance in, this silly Reaganesque term, 'tearing down that wall.' You guys built it. Latinos know how to work. Let us tear down that wall. And let’s help you build that bridge, that you initially said that you wanted to construct to begin with and you got it all wrong. We know a thing or two about intellectual infrastructure, as well as manual labor.”

And then the other thing that was really startling during that meeting was that folks in that room admitted that Cummins had received no death threats. And I was able to express to executives that I indeed was the critic who had been receiving numerous death threats throughout this entire process.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel — how are you going to follow up on this meeting?

MYRIAM GURBA: We have several check-in dates in place. So, there is supposed to be a 30-day progress report. And when that 30-day progress report is issued, we’re going to release it publicly. And then there’s also a 90-day check-in point, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll continue to follow this story. Myriam Gurba and Roberto Lovato, co-founders of Dignidad Literaria, the literary dignity movement.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is accepting applications for a paid, year-long news production fellowship here in New York. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced by Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Libby Rainey, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Charina Nadura, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Adriano Contreras and María Taracena.

Happy Birthday, Arthur Alcoff!

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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